Bonner Bolton to compete on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

By Andrew Giangola EBS Contributor

MILLSAP, Texas – The first piece of very good news was that he wasn’t going to die.

Then Bonner Bolton, temporarily paralyzed after a bad fall at the 2016 Professional Bull Riders season opener in Chicago, found out that one day, he’d be back on his feet.

“The minute the doctor said I would walk again, I wanted to jump right out of that hospital bed and dance,” Bolton said.

And boogey he will, on ABC’s hit series “Dancing with the Stars,” paired with veteran dancer Sharna Burgess. 

Since pile driving into the dirt at Allstate Arena, Bolton’s life has taken sharp turns onto paths typically not taken by cowboys raised on ranches and making a living barnstorming the country to ride bucking bulls. Fourteen months after nearly purchasing the farm, Bolton is embracing his cosmic reprieve. 

While flat on his back in a neck brace, Bolton was signed to global representation by IMG Models, PBR’s sister company in the WME | IMG family and the world’s largest star-making factory. He was named one of Us Weekly’s Hot Bodies, sat front row at a Victoria’s Secret show, posed for world-renowned photographer Mario Testino, and landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Now one of PBR’s own, who has spent his whole life ripping muscles and breaking bones in a quest for a World Championship buckle, will tango and twist as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” The new season premieres on ABC on Monday, March 20 at 7 p.m. Mountain time. 

“I’m up for the challenge,” Bolton said. “Physically, I feel good, and I’m in it to win it. I want to be an inspiration to others. I’m thankful for what I’ve overcome, and I hope to help motivate others who have challenges.”

ABC let Bolton submit three picks for his ideal dance partner. To get to know the dancers, he and his mother pored over past seasons of the show and Googled up a storm.

At the show’s first taping at his great grandfather’s spectacular 4,000-acre ranch in Millsap, Texas, Bolton would finally meet his mystery partner who was stationed at a nearby hotel under stand-by instructions. The crew waited for the late-day golden sun to make the call. Bolton walked a horse named Cedar up a gravel path and spotted a fit girl with flaming red hair. 

She was his No. 1 choice, Sharna Burgess, a veteran dancer who has finished as a DWTS runner-up several times.

Burgess sauntered in stiletto heels toward the cowboy. Despite the footwear—she was unaware of her destination that afternoon—and with Bolton’s help, the spunky Australian was riding Cedar.
  
In researching potential partners, Bolton was impressed with how Burgess worked with Noah Galloway, a disabled war veteran performing on one leg.

The PBR rider’s physical challenges, though in no way comparable, can’t be discounted. After splitting his C2 vertebra—the same injury suffered by actor Christopher Reeve—Bonner was given a 1 to 5 percent chance to walk. Although he’s now doing yoga and pulling his full body weight in chin-ups, hoping to get back to the PBR, he’s yet to be cleared for competition.

A metal clamp fusing his C2 and C3 vertebrae sits precariously close to a vital artery, and 8 inches of metal in his shoulder holds together a collarbone shattered in four places by a bull’s horn.

“I know I’m going to have to baby my neck and avoid certain dance moves,” Bolton said. “I’m putting my faith in Sharna.”

“He’s had a massive injury, and dancing puts a lot of strain on the body,” Burgess said. “But I love a challenge. With Noah, we worked our way around it, and I expect to do the same with Bonner. I love people with depth and truth and stories, who are willing to bare their soul.”

With the help of WME | IMG, Bolton has a support system not available to rodeo and bull riding legend Ty Murray when he competed on the popular dance show in 2008.

Murray remembers an important prep call with the network. Toward the end, the talent booker asked for questions. Murray had none. 

“She burst out laughing,” Murray recalled. “She said, ‘You have absolutely no idea what you are getting yourself into!”

She was right. Each day after grueling dance training sessions, Murray would wake up feeling like an 80-year old man.

“Muscles I didn’t know I had hurt,” he said. “You’re dancing for six hours in these weird little shoes. It felt like every bone in my foot was broken.”

Murray wasn’t much of a dancer, and he knew as much. He trained so hard that he wound up eating a bucket of ice cream every day just to keep his weight.

“There is no way faking your way through that show,” he said. “Dancing is an art form that takes a whole life to learn. The pros have spent years of disciplined practice to get where they are. And now you’re attempting what they’re doing.”

Sidelined from any competition since his fall, Bolton is chomping at the bit to compete again. He’s more nervous doing the tango than getting on Rango, an ornery bull he rode as Scott Eastwood’s stunt double during a pressure-packed midnight shoot for a key scene in the film, “The Longest Ride.”

The show’s mix of athletes and show-biz veterans, who include Mr. T, Nancy Kerrigan and Chris Kattan, are hardened competitors Bolton describes as “hungry wolves.”

Yet Murray, who made it to the fourth round, says the bull rider has a chance to win the high-stakes dance competition. 

“Bonner is a much better dancer than I was,” Murray said. “He’s got the right attitude and is preparing mentally and physically. He’s a legitimate cowboy and has the support of the entire western sports community. Bonner is going to be a tremendous ambassador for PBR and all cowboys.”

The first taping at his great-grandfather’s ranch lasted until the sun went down. Darkness descended, and a shooting star burst across the clear sky like a flaming pearl. The Australian dancer and Texas cowboy who had first met that afternoon shared a knowing look. You’d have to be a hardened cynic not to sense fateful chemistry.

“I saw that blazing star and made a quick wish,” Bolton said. “I’m pretty sure Sharna did, too.”

Andrew Giangola is Vice President of Strategic Communications for WME | IMG, a leading global sports, entertainment and fashion agency. He is the author of the sports book “The Weekend Starts on Wednesday.” He cannot dance very well.